Thinking about Bullying

Spastick, ugly, fat, weird, knock-kneed. These are some of the descriptions I have heard children give, in explaining why a particular victim deserves to be pranked, taunted, and laughed at.

As a therapist, do I join with my client in laughing along at some of the images he or she finds amusing, or do I confront him or her for what sounds like obvious cruelty towards another child who is struggling to fit in? Somehow it seems easier to work with the victim than the bully. The victim’s self-esteem can be addressed, and s/he can be given space to express his/her own angry and aggressive feelings which may be repressed or disowned. But how to work with the bully? Bearing in mind that a therapist is neither a friend nor a parent, there must be a third way: beginning to think with the child about the meaning of his or her behaviour .

As a particular child regaled me with his ‘cool kid’ persona, he seemed quite invulnerable. He was accepted, had none of the ‘weird kid’ traits, and his association with the ‘main crowd’ exempted him from being the butt of the jokes. Banding together and laughing at the ‘uncool’ kids seemed to augment this sense of belonging. Just the previous week, the same child had been telling me about another situation in which he felt particularly victimised, pushed around and emotionally squashed, and I could sense his rage about the injustices he perceived. So, how far apart are the victim and the bully, really?

Anna Freud wrote about the defence mechanism she called ‘identification with the aggressor’, to explain how people who have been victimised may be at risk of victimising others[i]. Being victimised or bullied places one in a forced position of helplessness relative to someone more powerful, with feelings of rage towards the bully remaining unexpressed. One way of understanding how the victim might bully others in a weaker position involves the mechanism of displacement: anger towards the bully is taken out on an easier target. Identification with the aggressor may be related, but different: the individual wishes to take on the identity of the more powerful individual, so as to disown the unbearably helpless and weak feelings associated with victimhood. All of those awful victim feelings are projected onto the ‘weird kid’, leaving the bully filled with powerful feelings. In addition, the victim’s ‘weirdness’ or ‘ugliness’ seems in the mind of the bully to render him/her deserving; the victim is abominable, quite frankly disgusting, certainly not someone with whom to identify with an empathic imagination.

In her paper on the psychodynamics of bullying, Margot Waddell observes that bullying so often happens in groups, with strength in numbers being at play. She highlights the fear that hovers beneath the surface of the bully’s awareness: afraid of being a target, the bully must stick closely to the ‘main guys’, make smart remarks to retain their approval, and stay as far as possible from the victim position. Waddell writes about how in addition to ganging up on the victim in the external world, there is a ‘ganging up’ going on in the bully’s internal world; the powerful parts of the self ‘ganging up’ on the weaker, more vulnerable parts[ii]. For some children, the vulnerable parts of the self are hated for being weak and helpless. In bullying, these parts are projected onto a child whose characteristics make him or her a ready target, and the bully simultaneously disowns and attacks them.

So, how to work with the bully? A complicated task if he or she is enjoying feelings of invulnerability and unable or unwilling to think about all this. These thoughts and insights about the more vulnerable self are in the realm of Christopher Bollas’ ‘unthought known’[iii]; the child may know about them unconsciously, but hasn’t been able to think about them consciously. If I can bear them in mind, perhaps we can start to talk about the enormous fear of being like the ‘weird kid’, and the child might feel that his or her more vulnerable self is being borne in mind, even held. If a child can have a benign experience in therapy, perhaps vulnerable aspects of the self can be better tolerated, even accepted. I would venture to say that the converse often applies: the victim may have disowned his or her more aggressive parts, and could use the therapy space to experience and express aggression, with the ultimate therapeutic goal of a more integrated self.

[i] Freud, A. (1936). Identification with the aggressor.The ego and the mechanisms of defence, 117-131.

[ii] Waddell, M. (2007). Grouping or ganging: The psychodynamics of bullying.British Journal of Psychotherapy,23(2), 189-204.

[iii] Bollas, C. (1989).The shadow of the object: Psychoanalysis of the unthought known. Columbia University Press.

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